Dragon Myths: Tales of Beasts, Beauties, and Brutes
The dragon is a legendary creature found in many cultures around the world. Generally speaking, the dragon is depicted as a huge creature that has a serpent-like body and the ability to fly. Although most dragons have four legs, some are depicted as having two legs, or no legs at all. In medieval European folklore, dragons have wings, breathe fire, and are normally seen as malevolent beings. By contrast, in Eastern cultures, the dragon is wingless, associated with the weather, especially rainfall and floods, and regarded as an auspicious creature. And there are many other varieties of dragons around the world.
The Story of Saint George and the Dragon
Arguably the best-known dragon story from medieval Europe is the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. Although Saint George is believed to have lived during the 3rd century AD, the story of his battle with the dragon only began to be widely circulated about a millennium later, during the Middle Ages.
His story is found in The Golden Legend, a collection of hagiographies, i.e. biographies of the saints. This work was originally compiled by the Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa, Blessed Jacobus da Varagine during the 13th century, and was first printed in the English language by William Caxton in 1483.
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According to The Golden Legend, Saint George was born in Cappadocia, in modern day Turkey, to Christian parents, and joined the Roman army when he grew up. One day, the saint was traveling in Libya when he came to a town called Silene. This town was menaced by a dragon living in a nearby pond that envenomed the whole countryside.
Fearing for their lives, the townspeople offered sacrifices to the dragon each day – first two sheep, then a man and a sheep, and finally the town’s children and youth. The sacrificial victims were chosen by lot and on the day of Saint George’s arrival, it was the king’s daughter who was to be sacrificed. The saint saw the princess beside the pond and asked her what was going on. Upon hearing the story of the dragon, Saint George resolved to fight the dragon and rescue the princess.
When the dragon appeared, the saint made the sign of the cross, charged at it on horseback, and speared it with his lance. Having wounded the beast, Saint George asked the princess for her girdle, which he used to tie round the dragon’s neck. Once this was done, the dragon was tamed and followed the pair back to the town. Saint George offered to kill the dragon if the townspeople became Christian. They converted, and Saint George beheaded the dragon.
Saint George and the Dragon by Gustave Moreau, 1889/1890. (Public Domain)
Saint Margaret of Antioch Also Faced Down a Dragon
While Saint George is the most famous dragon slayer in the West, he was not the only one. Another Christian saint said to have fought a dragon was Saint Margaret of Antioch, a contemporary of Saint George. Once again, it is in The Golden Legend that her story is found.
At the age of 15, the saint was thrown into prison as she refused to renounce her Christian faith and the marriage proposal of Olybrius, a Roman official. While in prison, Saint Margaret prayed to God that the fiend who had fought with her would be revealed to her. At once, the Devil, in the form of a dragon, appeared before her.
In one version of the story, Saint Margaret made the sign of the cross as the dragon was about to attack her, thereby vanquishing it. In another version, the beast managed to devour the saint. While in the belly of the dragon, Saint Margaret made the sign of the cross, thus causing the creature’s stomach to burst open. The saint emerged unhurt, but was soon sentenced to death for her continuous refusal to renounce Christianity.
Eastern Dragon Myths Show a Different Side
While the dragon is normally considered a creature of evil in the West, it is a different story in the East – it’s a benevolent creature in these cultures. Dragon kings are found in the mythology of China, Japan, and Korea, and are believed to be responsible for water-based weather phenomena, the most important of which being rain.
As they brought the rains needed for agriculture, dragon kings were highly revered. On the other hand, a wrathful dragon king could cause natural disasters such as floods, typhoons, and storms, hence it was necessary to keep them happy. The dragon kings of the East are also depicted as anthropomorphic creatures, as they are said to reside in palaces under the sea, where they ruled over their sea creature subjects.
The Dragon King of the Four Seas. (Public Domain)
Why Chinese Dragons Have their Unique Appearance
Apart from that, the physical depiction of Eastern dragons is different from their Western counter-parts. According to one legend, Huangdi, a legendary Chinese ruler, and the progenitor of the Chinese people, fought against nine tribes in the Yellow River Valley. The victorious Huangdi incorporated the totem of each defeated tribe into his own dragon totem, which explains why this creature has the physical attributes of nine different animals.
Thus, the Chinese dragon is a composite creature with the eyes of a shrimp, the antlers of a deer, the mouth of a bull, the nose of a dog, the whiskers of a catfish, the mane of a lion, the tail of a snake, the scales of a fish, and the claws of a hawk.
The Chinese dragon is a composite creature. (CC0)
Ayida-Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent
Benevolent dragons are not limited to Eastern cultures. Vodou practitioners, especially those in Benin and Haiti, believe in a loa (the spirits of Vodou) known as Ayida-Weddo. This loa is also known as the Rainbow Serpent. Ayida-Weddo is depicted neither like a Western dragon, nor an Eastern one, but is believed to have taken the form of a giant snake with glittering scales.
Ayida-Weddo is believed to be the loa of fertility, water, snakes, and rainbows. According to one myth, at the beginning of time, there was a large serpent that encircled the earth to prevent it from crumbling. When the first rains began to fall, Ayida-Weddo appeared, and the serpent, who was in fact another loa, Dambala-Wedo, fell in love with her, and married her.
Veve of Ayida-Weddo and Damballa, always depicted together. (Public Domain)
While Eastern dragons provided the material needs of their peoples, Ayida-Weddo and her husband are believed to have taught humanity the great secrets of life, so that mankind may be able to lead lives that are more spiritually fulfilling and meaningful.
The Malevolent Apep
Another example of an African dragon is Apep (known also as Apophis). Like Ayida-Weddo, Apep is depicted as a giant serpent. Unlike its Vodou counter-part, however, Apep was a malevolent force, and was the demon of chaos, destruction, and darkness. One of the best-known myths about Apep is his nightly battle with the sun god Ra.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the Sun traveled across the sky on a solar barque, and that each night it had to make the perilous journey through the Underworld. Here, Ra and his followers had to defend the Sun from the forces of the Underworld, the most dangerous of whom was Apep.
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It is unclear where Apep resided. In some versions, the serpent is said to reside just below the horizon, while others state that he is found at the heart of the Underworld. Yet others say that Apep waited for Ra at the ‘tenth region of the night’, i.e. just before dawn. As one of Apep’s title is ‘World Encircler’, it is unsurprising that the demon is thought to live in a number of different places.
In any case, the clash between Ra and Apep (and their followers) each night was inevitable. In one version of the myth, Apep would immobilize Ra and his followers using his hypnotic gaze. Strangely, it is only the god of chaos, Set, who is immune to Apep’s hypnotism. Fortunately, in this tale, Set is fighting on the side of Ra.
Thus, using a great spear, Set would pierce the side of Apep, defeating the demon, and allowing the Sun to continue on its journey. In another version of the myth, Apep would succeed in swallowing the Sun. Ra and his followers, however, would cut a hole from inside the stomach of the serpent, thus allowing the Sun to escape, and continue its journey.
Ancient Egyptian art depicting Apep being warded off. (Public Domain)
For the ancient Egyptians, the failure of the gods in their battle against Apep would result in the Sun not rising and the end of the world. The gravity with which they viewed this issue is evident in the establishment of religious rites meant to defend the world against Apep. The rituals are enacted by priests and the laity each night, in the belief that they would help Ra overcome his mighty foe. Moreover, each year, a ceremony called the Banishing of Apep was carried out. A wax effigy of the demon, thought to contain all the evil in Egypt, was burnt to keep people safe for the year.
The North American Dragon Myth of the Piasa Bird
Dragon myths are also found in the New World. In the United States, for instance, there is a creature known as the Piasa Bird, which is depicted in a painting on a cliff face overlooking the Mississippi River to the north of Alton, Illinois. The earliest surviving account of the painting is provided by Jacques Marquette, a French explorer, who saw it with his partner, Louis Jolliet, during their trip down the Mississippi in 1673.
Marquette wrote that he saw the painting of two monsters. Each of them was the size of a calf, had deer horns on its head, red eyes, a man’s face with a tiger’s beard, a long, serpent-like body with scales, and an extremely long tail that ended in a fish tail.
A modern reproduction of the "Piasa Bird", on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton. Wings were not described in Marquette's 1673 description. (Burfalcy/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
In 1836, an account of the painting, along with its backstory, was published by John Russell, a former professor from a town near Alton. Russell claimed that the creature was known as Piasa, which is Illini for ‘the bird that devours men’. Russell also claimed that the Piasa once ravaged the Native American villages, and killed many warriors.
Eventually, a chief by the name of Ouataga set a trap for the monster, and offered himself as bait. When the Piasa came for Ouataga, 20 warriors, who had been waiting to ambush it, emerged from their hiding spots, and fired their poisoned arrows at it. They succeeded in killing the creature, thus saving the rest of the villages. Later on, Russell admitted to his son that he had fabricated the story. Nevertheless, by then, the story had been repeated so many times that it was widely accepted as true.
Teju Jagua Has Seven Dog Heads
The last dragon myth is taken from South America. The Guarani, the indigenous inhabitants of the south-central part of South America, speak of a dragon known as Teju Jagua. This creature is said to be a giant lizard with seven dog heads. In addition, Teju Jagua was able to shoot fire from its eyes. According to the mythology of the Guarani, Teju Jagua was the first-born son of Tau and Kerana, the former being the evil spirit and the latter a mortal woman.
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Tau is said to have fallen in love with Kerana and transformed into a handsome young man hoping to woo her. Tau visited Kerana for seven days, but failed to make any impression on her. Finally, Tau decided to abduct the woman, but was prevented from doing so by Angatupyry, the good spirit. After a battle of seven days, Tau was defeated.
Despite his defeat, Tau was able to kidnap Kerana. According to one version of the myth, Tau got help from Pytajovai, the god of courage, who battled Angatupyry. Once Tau had gotten hold of Kerana, he raped her, or in some accounts, the two got married.
The people prayed to Arasy, the heavenly mother to punish Tau. Hearing their prayers, the goddess put a curse on the couple, causing their children to be born as monsters. Thus, the seven children of Tau and Kerana became the seven legendary monsters of Guarani mythology.
Statue representing Teju Jagua. (C. Wanda Zaleski/Vimeo Screenshot)
Although Teju Jagua has a ferocious appearance, it is supposed to be a completely harmless creature, since Tupa, the supreme god of the Guarani, made him that way. Teju Jagua is believed to be herbivorous, and its diet consists mainly of fruits. Teju Jagua’s favorite food, however, is honey, and one of its younger brothers, Jasy Jatere, the lord of the siesta, would bring him wild honeycombs.
Jasy Jatere would also lead Teju Jagua to Ypacarai Lake or Ypoa Lake to drink. The Guarani believe that Teju Jagua was the lord and protector of the fruits and caverns, as well as the guardian of treasures that lie hidden in the earth.
Top image: Knight and dragon (chainat / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren
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